Check here for my thoughts on the rest of the week 3 schedule.
Denver Broncos vs Tennessee Titans: DEN +7
Before the season started TEN was favored by 4.5 points in this matchup. So what has changed? TEN's win over BAL was definitely impressive, but is this enough for a 2.5 point swing up to a critical number?
I'm not buying it and there are already hints that the line will move back down. I still maintain that TEN is headed for a sub .500 record. They not that much better than DEN.
Are there some good things going on in TEN? Absolutely. Guys like Britt, Cook, and Finnegan have been standouts thus far. CJ will snap out of his early season slumber sooner or later. And Hasselbeck hasn't gone down with an injury yet.
Yet, this is where the good news ends. They come out completely flat to open the season and get manhandled by JAX despite a very deceiving final score. Give them credit for coming out fired up against BAL last week, but this is a deviation from the norm. I expect them to come back to earth this week with a lot less motivation. The embarrassment from week 1 and the David vs Goliath from week 2 are both gone.
Digging into the numbers, it's clear that TEN is going to grind out a lot of games this year. Their offensive points and defensive points allowed from long drives remains average, they underperform in their yards to points ratio, and their depth becomes a concern at the first sign of injury.
TEN will score some points against DEN's defense. Bailey will likely get the "questionable" tag on Friday's injury report so there will be opportunities in the air if he's out . Britt is emerging as a serious threat and should garner double coverage. Cook is an underrated tight end and is quickly developing a nice rapport with Hasselbeck. CJ should continue to improve enough to move the sticks and possibly break one. But DEN is getting a lot of guys back from injury this week. I waited until Wednesday to see who was back at practice before releasing this play and Williams and Dumervil were both back in action. These are huge additions back in the lineup and along with Von Miller should be able to slow down TEN enough to keep this close. I know it's only CIN, but DEN held them to 1 for 11 on 3rd down last week without their injured guys.
On offense, DEN also welcome back Moreno and Lloyd back to practice this week. A guy like Kyle Orton needs all the weapons he can get to make this offense go. I've never been high on him, but he is what he is--a competent QB who can run an offense. Moreno had people excited this year due to his offseason improvements, but once again he's underperformed and gone out with injuries. Still, it's better to have him in there to compliment McGahee and give John Fox the kind of balance he wants. Lloyd is the most critical piece here because he's really taken his game to a new level over the last 12 months. With a legitimate threat down the field, things open up for the sudden bright spot Eric Decker. Royal won't be missed given how well Decker has played this season.
Stats-wise, DEN have done a bit better than TEN with their point from long drive production and points to yards ratio. Nothing really stands out from either team though which is what we should expect from two teams not expected to make the playoffs. The main concern for DEN is their turnover ratio and penalties. If they continue to be bad in those areas than this pick is going to look foolish come Monday morning. But given the guys they are getting back I am confident things will regress to the mean. These teams aren't as far off as the line would suggest. There is absolute value in this line and I'm rolling with the dog. Prediction: Bank DEN +7.
Houston Texans vs New Orleans Saints: NO -4
The Texans are without a doubt right up there with the Lions as the "sexy" picks out of the gate. I strongly believe that a much larger percentage of the general betting public is savvier these days than they have been in years past. Combined HOU and DET are 4-0 ATS in 2011. I believe that streak is about to come to an end for one of them.
I like HOU a lot. I picked them to win the AFC South before there was any news about Peyton's injury and believe they will be a team to be reckoned with when all the dust settles, but so far they haven't been tested all that much. They beat up on a frazzled IND team in week 1 and won a gritty game vs MIA in week 2. But let's not get carried away. Matt Schuab is good, but he's not Drew Brees. Andre Johnson is as good as they come, but he can't match the wealth of receiving options that NO have right now. Arian Foster was foolishly inserted back into the lineup last week and re-aggravated his hamstring. Ben Tate has been given the green light to carry the load and while he hasn't disappointed any fantasy owners yet, he also can't match the versatile dynamics of the NO running game.
A closer look at this HOU offense reveals a hidden concern. Against two inferior opponents they have only been able to muster 23 points from long drives. They have also been very bad with their red zone scoring efficiency and pedestrian passing numbers. Given how good their offensive line is these stats are a bit surprising. That test will get all that much harder as DE Will Smith returns to the lineup for the Saints after serving a two game suspension. They are also expecting to get Porter back in the secondary. Now NO's defense isn't about to morph into the 85' Bears anytime soon and their stats might warrant a red flag, but keep in mind that they got shredded by an explosive GB team in week 1. Most teams see their biggest improvement in weeks 2 and 3 and I anticipate a strong showing by the home team on Sunday. This defense is designed to play with the lead so Gregg Williams can dial up the pressure and make teams one-dimensional. And despite the numbers surrendered by this unit so far this year, they've actually allowed far fewer points on the board than the yardage would indicate (a very overlooked stat).
And speaking of leads, this is where I expect NO to have the advantage. It's not easy to go into the Superdome and come away with a 'W'. Drew Brees might have lost Colston to an injury, but did anybody notice last week? Payton knows how to scheme anybody open whether it's Henderson, Meachem, Moore, or the now emerging Jimmy Graham.
If the passing attack wasn't loaded enough, NO also throw out 3 legitimate running backs at you that can do damage in a variety of ways. Thomas (20 touches so far) and Ingram (27 touches) make up the power run game while the dynamic Sproles (21 touches) is the perfect change of pace runner that is a matchup nightmare. He might even be better in his role than Reggie Bush was. In both weeks he's proven to be the "X-factor" that no one can account for. MIA managed to put up over 150 rushing yards last week and if Carpenter knew how to kick field goals, it would have been a much closer game than the final score suggested.
All this doesn't mean I expect a blowout. Wade Phillips has drastically improved HOU's defense and it doesn't resemble what we saw in 2010 whatsoever. They've completely shut down IND and MIA, but then again they are supposed to do that. It will be a whole new animal when they travel to NO. HOU has blitzed the 2nd most times over the first two weeks, but I think that number will drop on Sunday as Sean Payton and Drew Brees know how to counter pressure much better than most teams. I'm looking forward to this one as it features two playoff caliber teams from each conference, but in the end NO need the win more and should come away with the win and the cover. Prediction: Bank NO -4.
Detroit Lions vs Minnesota Vikings: DET -3
The hype for the Detroit Lions is officially out of control. The last time DET was favored in MIN was exactly 30 years ago to the day. The same kind of excitement surrounded the team heading into 2010, but that went dead as soon as Stafford went down with an injury. This season, not only is Stafford back and in complete control of the offense, but the additions they've made on defense has worked out great so far. They whipped up on TB on their own turf in week 1 and absolutely demolished a down and out KC team in week 2.
Plan the parade route?
Not so fast my friend. Let's see how they do against an elite team first, but we can definitely make plans to cash them this week against MIN. I was a little surprised that the sharps haven't pushed this line higher, but MIN is at home, played much better last week, and will be playing desperate ball to save their season. These are all valid reasons to be concerned about this game.
At the same time, what I really like about this DET team this year is how they've handled a couple key situations. First in week 1 they managed to close out TB despite a 2nd half comeback. Normally DET would find ways to lose that game. That's just what losing organizations do. I know it's just one game, but that was a good test to start the season. Second, they killed who they were expected to kill in week 2. It would have been very easy for DET to go into that game feeling very good about themselves given all the press clippings and hoopla on ESPN. Yet, they didn't mess about and took care of business. What was most impressive was that they didn't take their foot off the gas in the 2nd half. This all might equate to a false sense of confidence, but I'm willing to bank on the fact that this DET team is different than years past.
In this matchup I expect to see more dominance from DET's defensive line. Given the way that passers are having their way with defenses this year, you can't underestimate how important a pass rush is worth right now. The fact that they don't need to rely on blitzes takes a lot of pressure off the back 7 in coverage. This gives new middle linebacker Stephan Tulloch a lot of opportunity to be a playmaker all over the field. His addition has done wonders for the face of this defense.
MIN will once again rely heavily on Peterson to carry the load and he will have a good day. The challenge for MIN will be whether or not they can keep up with DET's offense. If they get down by a couple scores then McNabb will be a sitting duck. Almost three quarters of his passes come from play-action, but that becomes ineffective in obvious passing situations. Three of DET's four defensive backs had interceptions last week. How much better is McNabb than Cassel? Does he have better receiving options? What about MIN's offensive line? In short, this offense is in big trouble. DET's front four is one of the best conditioned fronts in the NFL and they will wear down MIN over the course of the game.
Now the fun part. Which component of this DET offense will MIN want to shut down? Jahvid Best had one of the best games of his short career last week. He was simply outstanding in both the run game and the pass game. Scheffler and Pettigrew are also matchup problems over the middle. This is what happens when defense try to key in on Calvin Johnson. Making matters more difficult for MIN is the spread offense that DET like to employ. Even guys like Titus Young are becoming playmakers in the 4 wide set. Nate Burleson said he wants to be the black Wes Welker. I wouldn't hold my breath on that, but he's a great #2 option for Stafford and piled up over 100 yards last week. Good luck trying to cover all these guys. Even if DET's offensive line is average, I don't know many teams that can lineup sideline to sideline against this group. This task will be even more difficult if nickel back Chris Cook can't go due to his groin injury. Pro-bowler Kevin Williams returns from suspension, but he won't be 100% due to a lingering foot injury. Lastly, don't sleep on kick returner Stephan Logan. He's a dynamic weapon that hasn't had a chance to return anything this year and Ryan Longwell isn't noted for his big leg.
For two weeks in a row MIN played solid in the 1st half only to fizzle out and blow it in the 2nd. That has to wear on a team that had higher hopes than this. Meanwhile, the new winning attitude in DET has the organization jacked up and eager to improve. The new veteran leadership has dramatically improved the depth throughout the lineup. Are they a well-oiled machine yet? Far from it. But the wheels are moving the right direction and it won't be long until the market over-adjusts for their hot start. As long as Vegas offers me reasonable lines, I'll continue to take them. I picked MIN to go "under" in the season win totals and tagged DET to go "over". This is how I expect the script to play out on Sunday. Prediction: Bank DET -3.
Atlanta Falcons vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers: ATL +1.5
It's still very early, but some stats are beginning to trickle in and some interesting numbers stand out. ATL was able to get it's red zone offense into gear against a quality defense while TB is still sputtering. Through two games TB's offense ranks near the bottom of the league in red zone deficiency even though they've done a nice job maintaining drives down the field. There are some troubling signs on defense as well. TB has given up 47 points from long drives (55+ yards) which is 2nd worst only to OAK (48). ATL's defense is near the middle of the pack despite facing better opponents. I mentioned in the preseason that this particular stat is going to loom large this year due to the new kickoff rule. I realize the sample size is still extremely small, but these numbers are unquestionable red flags for a TB team hoping to stay in the divisional race.
ATL have enough balance on offense to keep this young defense off-balance. Michael Turner continues to be the stick that stirs the drink and it's only a matter of time before Julio Jones has a breakout performance. Roddy White is expected to draw most of the attention from Talib this week so this could be the game where Jones busts out. Tony Gonzalez showcased to the league that his playing days aren't over just yet and if he can continue to produce like that then opposing defenses are going to continue having trouble matching up with all these weapons. The O-line has had it's fair share of problems thus far, but TB's scheme doesn't pose the same kind of threat that CHI and PHI has. I also don't expect any kind of emotional let-down after the Vick-Bowl. TB is a divisional rival and ATL must keep an eye on NO as well. Mike Smith is a quality coach who knows how to get his players ready week in and week out.
On defense, ATL's defensive tackle Peria Jerry finally made an impact this season. Injuries have slowed his progression thus far, but this first-round pick from 2009 turned some heads in the preseason and it looks like it's spilling over into the regular season as well. His production is critical if ATL hope to improve upon their pass rush from last year. With Edwards and Abraham on the outside, Jerry will continue to get favorable one-on-one matchups inside. This unit did give up a ton of yards against PHI and didn't show much mojo against CHI, but every defense in the NFL is struggling at this point as scoring is sky high across the board. Nothing in the numbers suggest any reason for concern just yet. The good news for ATL is that TB have gotten off to a slow start in both games this year and will once again be playing in front of an unfilled stadium. Freeman continues to be efficient with the ball, but already has 2 INTs in 2011. He only had 6 all of last year. A regression to the mean was inevitable and he faces a better ATL defense than he did last year.
ATL's win on Sunday could be the kind of game that springboards their season. The NFC South race is going to come down to the Falcons and the Saints and the first sign of separation from the rest of the division begins this week. Prediction: Bank ATL +1.5.
Baltimore Ravens vs St Louis Rams: BAL -4
Without a doubt they were the biggest disappointment from week 2. I believe they are an overrated team, but I expected better from them in TEN. I also would have taken STL in this one if they didn't have so many injuries. I almost pulled the trigger on them last week against NY, but as you saw they are struggling mightily without guys like Jackson, Amendola, and Bartell. They got even worse news when Cadillac went down with a hamstring pull. Both RB's might return, but how effective will they be? The skill positions for STL are decimated and too much is being placed on Bradford. I'm sky high on his talent and potential, but his receivers are dropping balls and Kendricks hasn't been as good as he looked in the preseason. Through two games, they've only managed 19 points from long drives. Sims-Walker and Norwood are good depth guys, but neither strike fear into opponents as go-to starters.
Flacco continues to be an inconsistent and overrated QB, but BAL don't need him to be Tom Brady to win this game. They will rely heavily on Ray Rice and with good reason. There isn't much this guy can't do. He was one of the few bright spots for a BAL team that was otherwise flat in TEN. He'll be pounding the rock out of the backfield behind Leach and catching balls out of the flats and split out wide creating mismatches with linebackers and/or safeties. Even if you maintain your gaps Rice doesn't usually go down at first contact. Evans is out of this one which means there will be even more emphasis on the run. STL improved their defense in the offseason and they will be aggressive with Flacco. The good news is they won't need to win this in a shootout. The Ravens offense should be able to string together enough drives to let their defense win this.
John Harbaugh was 15-1 in letdown situations so last week was an anomaly. This is a big bounce back situation against an inferior banged up Rams team. Prediction: Bank BAL -4.
Green Bay Packers vs Chicago Bears: GB -3.5
GB do have some injury concerns. Mathews, Woodson, Finley, and Williams are all probable, but they missed practice time. Collins went on IR and creates a hole in the secondary. Yet, it's a good sign that none of these key players are questionable. The return of Williams is going to give an already challenged CHI offense more to worry about. There isn't any way to spin the fact that these CHI receivers are garbage. I'm sure they wouldn't look near as bad if Cutler actually had time to throw. Even though Carimi is a work in progress, his loss compounds the issues they have on the O-line. In fact, he could hurt Forte's production more than Cutler's because he's so highly touted in run-blocking. GB's pass rush hasn't been as good without Jenkins this year, but Capers is smart enough to attack that line without a pro-bowler laden lineup. CHI will have opportunities to make things happen because GB have given up a ton of yardage this season, but they key in this game is keeping up with Rodgers.
In their loss to CHI last season, GB were still in a position to win and cover the game in spite of their mistakes. A fumble on the final drive killed their chances and they committed a season high 18 penalties! Now that Finley is back in the lineup and Starks has emerged as a legitimate option in the run game, I don't foresee this CHI defense being able to contain GB's offense. Jordy Nelson came out this week and said they will need "long drives to beat the Packers this week". This is something GB has excelled at over the last couple of seasons. This year they already have 57 points from long drives! This is an area that CHI is horrible at. Under Martz they haven't been able to sustain long drives or maintain the ball enough to control the clock. Big advantage GB here! If GB can get the lead they will ultimately make CHI one-dimensional the same way that Brees did last week.
The only thing CHI have going for them is home field advantage and the revenge factor from last season. We can thank these factors for keeping the line relatively low. In reality, GB should be favored by more. Prediction: Bank GB -3.5.